ISLAMABAD • Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai returned to Pakistan yesterday, saying tearfully that it was "a dream" to come home for the first time since she was airlifted to Britain after being shot in the head by a Taleban gunman more than five years ago.
The 20-year-old was overcome with emotion as she made a televised speech from the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad, breaking down in tears as she spoke of the beauty of her native Swat Valley and how she imagines the streets of Pakistan from London and New York.
"Always it has been my dream that I should go to Pakistan and there, in peace and without any fear, I can move on streets, I can meet people, I can talk to people.
"And I think that it's my old home again... so it is actually happening, and I am grateful to all of you."
She added: "I don't cry much, I don't know why today."
She had arrived unannounced with her parents under tight security overnight. Pakistanis awakening to the news that she was back in the country flooded social media with messages of welcome, with many hailing her bravery - but others accused her of a conspiracy to foment dissent.
Ms Yousafzai is widely respected internationally as a global icon for girls' education, but opinion is divided in Pakistan, where some conservatives view her as a Western agent on a mission to shame her country.
Residents of Swat said they were happy to see her return.
"I had not imagined that she would ever come (back)," Ms Rida Siyal, a student who said she had been a "good friend" of Ms Yousafzai before the shooting, told Agence France-Presse. "(She) defeated the dark force of fear. We are delighted to see her back."
Ms Yousafzai became a global symbol for human rights after a gunman boarded her school bus in Swat on Oct 9, 2012, and asked "Who is Malala?", and then shot her. She was treated for her injuries in the British city of Birmingham, where she also completed her schooling.
The youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014, she has continued to be a vocal advocate for girls' education while pursuing her studies at Oxford University.
Ms Yousafzai met Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi earlier yesterday and later took questions from an audience after her televised speech, in which she also called for Pakistani unity and female empowerment.
She said Pakistan must invest in its children's education, adding that the Malala Fund has already put more than US$6 million (S$7.9 million) into girls' education in the country.
Earlier this month, a school opened in Swat that was constructed and funded with part of her Nobel Peace Prize money.
"I hope that we can all join hands in this mission for the betterment of Pakistan," she said.